Pupils more likely to miss school on Fridays since the pandemic, MPs told

Pupils have been missing school on Fridays since the pandemic because their parents are at home, the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.

Dame Rachel de Souza told the Commons Education Select Committee that levels of persistent absence – where children miss 10% or more of school time – remain high following Covid-19.

She cited figures which estimate that 818,000 of the 1.6 million children who were persistently absent across the autumn and spring terms in 2021/22 were off school for reasons other than illness.

Dame Rachel said she is “seriously worried” about the number of children who are persistently absent, adding that it is “one of the issues of our age”.

She told MPs that discussions with families have exposed a number of reasons why the pandemic is still having a negative impact on attendance.

“One is, because of online learning in Covid-19, there’s a little bit of ‘Well, why can’t we just have online learning and that’s fine’. So that attitude has come through a bit,” Dame Rachel said.

An analysis of attendance data – both before and after Covid-19 – from a number of multi-academy trusts suggests some pupils are now not going in to school on Fridays, a trend which did not exist before the pandemic, she said.

“We’re seeing a huge amount of Friday absence that wasn’t there before. Parents are at home on Fridays. We’ve had evidence from kids: ‘Well, you know mum and dad are at home, stay at home’.”

She told MPs: “We need our children back to school and I just can’t urge everyone enough to be singing that from the rooftops.”

Dame Rachel said the main reasons why children are off school is because their special educational needs are not being met, as well as anxiety and mental health issues.

But she added there is also a group of pupils who have “just not come back” since the pandemic.

Speaking to MPs on Tuesday about the role of parents, Alice Wilcock, head of education at the Centre for Social Justice think tank, said: “We are seeing a great shift towards disengagement with education.

“Local authorities said to us that the pandemic taught parents that sometimes school is important and sometimes it’s not, and that is really ingrained in our attendance patterns.”

Ms Wilcock added that there has been a “postcode lottery” of support for families across the country.

“I think you have to look at the drivers of absence to understand where parents feel confident supporting their children, where parents actually say we need more support,” she said.

“So, for example, with anxiety, a lot of parents are struggling to support their children because they need a trained specialist to support them with anxiety.”

Ms Wilcock told MPs: “Especially post-lockdown I think parents are facing social media that they’re not familiar with, that they don’t necessarily know about the online world.

“Bullying used to be in the classroom and quite visible; now it’s online and parents don’t feel equipped to tackle that.

“And also parents don’t feel equipped to tackle the gaming addictions that started during the pandemic.”

Some families are opting to take their children out of school for term-time holidays as they would rather receive a fine than pay more for a vacation, MPs were told, with some councils reporting that they receive cheques from parents before penalties for unauthorised holidays are even issued.

Dame Rachel said: “If you’re from a family that doesn’t earn as much as other families, if you take a cheaper holiday you’re likely to get a fine from your school and it’s not worth it.

“Whereas if you come from a well-off family you can do the trade-off and say my holiday is £600 cheaper a day and actually I have to pay a fine of £200 pounds so the trade-off is worth it.

“I wish we could change the industry and I do think we should be putting some moral pressure on there.”

On fixed penalty notices for unauthorised holidays, Ms Wilcock added: “We heard of some local authorities that receive cheques in the post from parents.

“They knew that they were going to be fined and so before they got a fixed penalty notice they went ‘here’s my cheque’.”